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Fuelling Chris Froome to victory

David Kenning
26 Sep 2016

We speak to Team Sky's nutritionist about how he helped Chris Froome win his third Tour de France.

On Sunday 24th July this year, Chris Froome rolled across the Champs-Elysees finish line in Paris, arms aloft in celebration of his historic third Tour de France victory. It was the culmination of three weeks of racing in which the Brit had asserted his dominance on the mountains, in the time trials, flying downhill and even in a breakaway move with Peter Sagan. There were, of course, moments of drama – who could forget the sight of Froome running up Mont Ventoux? – but ultimately, victory was comfortable.

Such dominance, however, is impossible to achieve without dedicated training and meticulous planning – something for which Team Sky has become famous. But there’s also the element of chance, and you don’t need to look far back in Froome’s career to see how it all might have turned out differently.

In 2013, the Tour de France was celebrating its 100th edition and to mark the occasion, organisers came up with the brilliantly sadistic idea of making riders climb the mighty Alpe d’Huez not once but twice in the same stage. This was to come just three days before the finish, by which time riders would already have nearly three weeks of hard racing in their tired legs. Although he looked secure in the yellow jersey at the start of stage 18, Froome paid for his efforts to drop Alberto Contador before the final ascent, and just 5km from the summit, the dreaded ‘bonk’ struck. Like an inexperienced rider tackling his first sportive, Froome had failed to fuel himself properly and suddenly found his legs devoid of energy. Nairo Quintana seized the moment and rode away from his suffering rival.

Fortunately, team-mate Richie Porte was on hand to relay back to the team car and pick up an emergency energy gel. Disaster averted, Froome was able to pick up the pace and ultimately crossed the line just a minute behind Quintana. The effort to chase back wasn’t the only cost, however. Froome had broken the rule prohibiting taking food from the team car in the final 20km of a stage and was penalised a further 20 seconds by race commissaires. It was a price worth paying, though – that vital dose of energy had helped him cut his losses to Quintana and extend his lead over Contador, securing his hold on the yellow jersey. Without that late sugary hit, however, it could have been race over. 

It was a rare mistake for the usually well-oiled Team Sky machine. A broken-down team car meant Froome had been unable to pick up his food supplies at the planned point, and it serves to highlight the vital role nutrition plays in achieving the kind of success Froome and Team Sky have enjoyed over the years. As with everything else the team does, no calorie is left unplanned – which is one reason the team appointed Dr James Morton as head of nutrition at the start of the 2015 season. 

Originally from Belfast, Morton had spent over 10 years at Liverpool John Moores University researching exercise metabolism and nutrition, even spending time as a performance nutritionist for Liverpool Football Club. ‘I don’t come from a cycling background,’ Morton admits, ‘but I still run my own research group in exercise metabolism, and that was one of the reasons I was approached for the role, because of the research that we’ve been doing and the obvious fit it has to endurance sports.’

Raising the bar

Although Team Sky had already won the Tour twice when Morton joined the team, it was up to him to ensure that they remained world-beaters. And with his help, they did just that, winning a further two Tours, as well as their first Monument with victory for Wout Poels at Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year, and second place finishes for Ben Swift at Milan-San Remo and Ian Stannard at Paris-Roubaix.

While Morton is modest about his part in that success, those results speak volumes. ‘Ian Stannard in particular is one who’s done a lot of work,’ Morton reveals. ‘It’s clear for a lot of people to see that he’s the leanest he’s ever been, he’s fuelling better on races than ever, and I think his performance on Paris-Roubaix summed that up.’

Fuelling to win comes down to a philosophy which Morton summarises as ‘leaner, fresher, faster’, explaining that, ‘we want to optimise the power-to-weight ratio, make sure riders use nutrition to maximise recovery so they’re always fresh and ready to race. Then on the race day, it’s making sure people fuel well enough. So in effect, we’re ready to race but we’re also racing to win.’

Swift, who was disappointed to miss out on sharing in Froome’s success after a knee injury ruled him out of the Tour, is clearly a fan of Morton’s approach. ‘He’s refreshing, he comes up with new ideas and he understands it from the rider’s point of view,’ Swift told Cyclist. ‘The videos he produces for each race are a useful refresher to get you thinking about it, because when you’re racing it’s easy to forget. You know you need to eat, and you do eat, but it’s so much better to eat to a structured plan rather than sporadically.’ As for that Milan-Sanremo result, Swift adds, ‘Nutrition was massively important, because Sanremo is so easy at the start but so hard at the end, and it’s such a long race. You’ve got a lot of variables in it, with different styles of racing within one race. When it’s going easy, it’s easy to forget to eat because you’re not exerting yourself that hard, but that’s when you need to put the food in the bank, because for the last 100km it is pretty flat out.’

Planning a nutrition strategy for a big race like the Tour starts earlier than you might imagine, with weight targets set for individual riders in January, and training schedules planned weeks in advance, with a focus on working towards those weight targets. But getting the rider to the start line in the right condition is only half the challenge. 

‘We measure power on every stage,’ says Morton, ‘so we can track energy expenditure. We’ll have every rider’s metabolic rate calculated and from there you can roughly work out the energy needs for different days.’ Meticulous planning can only get you so far, though. As Froome’s experience in 2013 showed, events sometimes force you to improvise. Which is why you won’t find Morton watching the Tour on TV at home, but at the race –  on hand to offer advice. 

‘You’ve got to be there, seeing what’s going on and reacting,’ Morton explains. ‘That’s where I actually do a lot of my teaching – to riders and coaches – actually on the race.’ So while it may be the directeur sportif (DS) you see barking out tactical orders to riders from the team car, the team nutritionist back at base camp is, in many ways, just as influential to the outcome. ‘In certain situations, we can be on the radio to the DS, but it’s pretty much making sure that all the riders follow the plans before the race starts, and are feeding regularly at 20 minute intervals.’

The Science bit

Of course, it’s not only important to make sure riders eat at the right times, but also to make sure that they’re taking on the right fuel. Unsurprisingly, this is something Morton takes very seriously, and as part of his research at John Moores University, Morton worked closely with sports nutrition experts Science in Sport (SiS) for over five years. It was a relationship he caried over into his work with Team Sky, with the Lancashire-based firm becoming the team’s official nutrition partners this year. As a relationship, it’s clearly been a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Morton explains: ‘Science in Sport has funded some of our research at John Moores, and some of that research helped inform its product design. It’s perfect for us because it’s a company that we know make high-quality products we can trust because I know it inside out.’

That level of trust isn’t simply a matter of commercial expediency for Morton, but the outcome of years of research. A common problem familiar to most amateur cyclists is an upset stomach caused by consuming a brand of energy gel that their body’s not used to – more often than not on a sportive where the gel’s been supplied by the organisers. Morton explains how his work has shown this is an easily avoided problem. ‘We published some research last year where we quantified the osmolality of around 40 different gels.’ Osmolality, in case you’re wondering, is the concentration of a chemical substance in blood. Morton continues: ‘Some gels aren’t optimised for fast delivery to your stomach, so they just sit in your guts and result in a lot of gastrointestinal issues, especially if you don’t consume enough fluid.’  The key, then, with energy gels, according to Morton, is to choose one that’s isotonic so that it’s absorbed more quickly, without the need of lots of water to wash it down. ‘Which is why we use SiS gels,’ says Morton. ‘As they’re designed to empty from your stomach quickly and get into your muscles more quickly.’

The right information

For amateurs, avoiding stomach upsets may be the major benefit of choosing the right gel, but when it comes to pro racing, getting that hit of energy at the right time could be the difference between victory and defeat (hey, just ask Froome!). But that’s not the only reason for pros to watch what they eat. We’ve all heard stories of athletes being caught out in doping tests by nutrition supplements contaminated with banned substances, and while the suspicion is that these excuses are often not the whole story, it’s an area where the pros need to exercise extreme caution. Which is where Informed Sport comes in.

Established in 2008 by one of the world’s leading anti-doping laboratories, Informed Sport is a certification programme that batch tests sports nutrition products to ensure they don’t contain anything they shouldn’t. Having passed the test, the brand is allowed to then display an Informed Sport logo on its labels, giving athletes the reassurance that the product is safe to take. For amateur cyclists, this isn’t a major concern – apart, of course, for the potential health risks of taking a banned substances – but for anyone involved in professional competition, it’s vital. 

‘Informed Sport is our number one priority really,’ says Morton. ‘We need products that are Informed Sport registered and batch tested, otherwise we don’t even entertain them.’ In fact, Team Sky’s precautions go even further – only using products that have been batched tested twice. Once when the ingredients go into a factory prior to manufacture, and again when the outgoing product leaves the factory. It’s a standard that their supplier SiS is happy to adhere to. 

A question of taste

It’s fair to say that modern sports nutrition products taste a lot better than their predecessors. Gone are the days when the only option was a synthetic-tasting orange goo. But is taste important?

‘I wouldn’t say there’s a physiological effect,’ says Morton. ‘But it’s definitely important to avoid flavour fatigue, because people get bored of consuming the same flavours all the time. It’s interesting that one of the things we discussed at length with the coaches was whether or not to narrow the flavours available to the riders, because there was a suggestion that we might be confusing them, but my opinion was the opposite. I was actually saying that I think the riders would really welcome a greater diversity of flavour because it will alleviate boredom and encourage them to keep fuelling well. That’s the policy we followed and we’ve had no complaints about the number of flavours we offer – it’s been a successful strategy.’

In fact, such is the determination to keep riders happy with their nutrition, the team commissioned SiS to produce custom flavours to order for its pros. Former Team Sky star Sir Bradley Wiggins apparently asked for a ginger flavour to be made for him.

Keeping it real

Of course, while energy gels are pretty much vital for the pros, being able to quickly deliver high doses of energy without filling up the stomach, the needs of us amateur cyclists are somewhat less intense. When working out your fuelling strategy for a 100 mile sportive, it’s worth considering whether gels are your best option or if you’re better off sticking to real food. ‘It all depends on the stage of the race,’ says Morton. ‘The convenient thing about gels is that they’re very easy to digest, and as it’s a 20g serving of carbohydrate you know what you’re getting and that it’s going to do the job. But of course, if you’re riding for five or six hours then it’s good to have some solids in the front part of that ride, and a lot of those solids will contain protein as well, which is important for recovery.’

So, don’t try to live off energy bars and gels, then? ‘Well, you could, but it’s dangerous ground when people associate sports nutrition with supplements all the time. The supplements are there to support a good diet of natural whole foods,’ Morton explains. This goes especially for the pros, and for Team Sky, with chef Henrik Orre accompanying them, they’re guaranteed a hearty, well-balanced meal at the end of each day’s racing, packed with protein to aid fast recovery.

For the amateur cyclist like us, though, who’s unlikely to be planning three weeks of consecutive hard racing, Morton reckons there’s nothing wrong with the traditional post-ride treat of coffee and a slice of cake – as long as you’ve put the miles in. ‘If you’ve done some hard exercise, you’ve  depleted your muscle glycogen stores,’ he explains. ‘And muscle is most receptive to replenishing glycogen immediately post exercise. So if you put your carbs in immediately after exercise, they’re going to get stored back as glycogen.’ And what if you stuff yourself full of carbs when you haven’t emptied your glycogen tank? ‘Then those carbs will most likely get stored as body fat,’ says Morton. Which, of course, makes perfect sense – and also explains where we have gone wrong all these years!